Just over an hour after lawmakers ended their second 30-day special session of the year, Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back for a third one, with transportation funding the only issue on the agenda.
"When it comes to transportation, the stakes facing our state could not be higher, and a failure to act now could take years — if not most of a decade — to correct, as traffic congestion increases and harms our quality of life," Perry said in a statement announcing the call.
News of the call was apparent to leaders of the House and Senate earlier Tuesday as they wrapped up the second session's last day.
Standing before mostly empty chairs in the 150-member Texas House, House Speaker Joe Straus adjourned the second special session and announced that Perry would be calling them all back for a third special session later in the day.
After gaveling in the House at 2:36 p.m., Straus briefly thanked members for their time and hard work during the second special session before acknowledging Perry would probably call a third special session 30 minutes after both chambers had officially adjourned the second special session.
"See you in 30 minutes," he quipped, telling the few dozen House members in the Capitol to stick around for the opening of the third session.
The Senate convened briefly Tuesday afternoon and then quickly went into a “caucus of the whole” in which the full body meets in a room to speak privately. Before the start of the caucus, Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he had the 21 Senate votes needed to pass House Joint Resolution 2, one of the two pieces of legislation that make up the transportation funding measure lawmakers have been trying to pass for weeks. The House voted down HJR 2 Tuesday, so a possible Senate vote would likely be symbolic.
About 40 minutes later, after the House adjourned sine die, the Senate reconvened and Dewhurst announced that there would be no vote on HJR 2.
“It’s my understanding that the governor is going to call us back in in a few minutes and I have some comments on that when we’re brought back in,” Dewhurst said. He thanked senators for their hard work.
“It’s been fun but I’ll see you soon," Dewhurst said, echoing his last words before the end of the first special session. He then adjourned the Senate.
It was the second special session in which lawmakers had tried and failed to pass a transportation funding measure. Lawmakers immediately began discussing what issues Perry might add to the agenda of a third special session, with some guessing that tuition revenue bonds and campus carry legislaton were the likeliest possibilities.
In about an hour, Perry's proclamation was delivered to the House and Senate. Both chambers started the third special sesssion around 5:30 p.m. Both appointed lawmakers to lead discussions on transportation and adjourned until Monday.
The Senate also suspended several of its rules to allow it to quickly pass two measures - Senate Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 1. The measures from Nichols are identical to the transportation funding measures House and Senate negotiators agreed to days earlier and that failed to find enough support in the House on Monday. If both chambers can pass the two measures in this third special session, Texas voters would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment in 2014 to divert half of the oil and gas production tax revenue currently earmarked for the state’s Rainy Day Fund toward road construction and maintenance. The plan is expected to raise about $900 million a year, less than a quarter of the additional annual revenue TxDOT has said it needs to maintain current congestion.
In order to protect the future balance of the Rainy Day Fund, the Republican-dominated Legislative Budget Board would be requird to periodically set a minimum balance for the fund, after which the diversions would be blocked. The LBB provision was key to the compromise reached by both chambers over the weekend but it disstisfied enough Democrats and Republicans in the House to prevent its passage on Monday.
After Dewhurst referred the bills to the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate recessed so the committee could briefly meet at the desk of Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. In less than 3 minutes, the committee held a hearing on both bills. Nichols briefly explained both measures and Williams, surrounded by a small, standing group of Senators, legislative staffers and reporters, asked if there was any "public testimony." There was not. The committee then voted both bills to the Senate floor 10-1, with state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, voting no.
The full Senate then voted both measures 22-3. The no votes on both bills were Sens. Patrick, Ken Paxton, R-Plano, and Charles Scwertner, R-Georgetown.
Senators voted 19-6 against an amendment proposed by Patrick to add back into SJR 1 language to the constitutional amendment creating a floor on the Rainy Day Fund.
“I see no reason members in sending a bill back that they just voted down exactly as is,” Patrick said. He noted that the House had passed a measure with similar language earlier in the year.
Nichols successfully moved to table Patrick’s amendment, explaining that he wanted to “begin this process where we left off.”
After both chambers had adjourned for the second time in a few hours, Perry released a statement congratulating the Senate on passing both measures. The remarks came a day after he had chided the House for not providing enough support for the plan on Monday.
Straus and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, had urged Perry not to call members back for a third special session right away. Straus had also criticized the transportation plan that had failed the House, calling it a "band-aid over a pothole."
Dewhurst disagreed, calling the plan under discussion a "meaningful improvement."
Added Nichols: "A billion dollar a year band-aid is an awful big band-aid."